Relational Fissures, Proportional Loving, and Grace with Siblings

In honor of Kim Kardashian’s engagement to Kanye, here’s the “Grace with Siblings” section from […]

David Zahl / 11.5.13

In honor of Kim Kardashian’s engagement to Kanye, here’s the “Grace with Siblings” section from Grace in Practice:

154149-the-kardashian-sisters-pose-for-promoting-their-clothing-line-the-kardI once buried a man who had three sons. He was a first-generation immigrant from Europe. One of his sons had become extremely successful in the real estate business. Another had become an alcoholic at an early age and was in bad shape. The third seemed moderately happy; he had a wife and two small children and an okay job. At the gravesite the troubled son became very anxious and had to be restrained by his brothers from jumping into the open burial plot with his father’s casket. Was it sorrow? Was it guilt? Was it drink? The incident left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth.

Another time I heard a preacher at a memorial service tell a light but loving anecdote about the dead woman. Her five adult children were in the church, and nearly everyone laughed with recognition and affection. One of the sons, however, was upset by the story, took offense, and came one step away from taking a punch at the minister. That son drove away right after the service and skipped the interment. Everyone else said it was only to be expected, since that brother had been scarce throughout his mother’s long illness and was feeling judged by his siblings, guilty and angry. The fissure between the siblings was acted out in relation to the funeral of their mother.

The relation between siblings can be very touchy. The incident that most opened my eyes to this took place in connection with a parent’s last illness and funeral. The father was sick for a long time and was cared for very well by his son and daughter-in-law, with whom he had been living. The other brother was far away, living out a hippie phase in the Southwest. He failed to come home during the illness of his dad. When the man died, that son not only failed to come home, but he would not come home. He did not attend the funeral and was harsh to his dutiful brother over the telephone.

Things got worse. When their mother died about a year later, the brother in Arizona again would not come to the funeral. Later, I spoke to the brother who had buried both of his parents alone. He told me he never wanted to see his brother again, and that if he ever did see his brother again, he would not be responsible for what he did. This is an extreme case, but not so unusual. Any minister or priest can tell you stories like it. Problems between siblings often come out in their final form at funerals.

This section could be more accurately titled “Law with Siblings.” It is law that is operating whenever there is judgment between brothers and sisters. The parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32), with the self-righteous elder brother, is the classic case of this in the New Testament. But the category of law is solely diagnostic. It is not healing. Only the factor of grace in the relation between siblings is able to heal these lifelong infectious diseases that overtake families. How does grace operate between brothers and sisters in families?

Grace has to do with the unmeasured plentitude of affection for all, without regard to deserving. One-way love is equal by definition because it has nothing to do with the qualities or “merits” of the person to whom it is directed. One-way love is therefore wholly in the eye of the beholder. Because it stands apart from the receiver, grace makes no distinctions between receivers. Therefore, grace is an even distribution of affection.

Almost all sibling problems have to do with a child’s feeling that the affection of his parents was unevenly distributed. The middle child thinks the eldest is favored, but the youngest is really the favored one. The youngest basks in the affection of his less-uptight parents, who have become wiser in their child-rearing. The eldest child feels she was imposed upon. Not only was she the guinea pig for first-time parents, but she had to look after the children who came after her. She had to be responsible too early. The mantra of “birth order” has something to contribute here, but each child always takes it in his or her own way. Ask adult children and they will let you know exactly how they think the affection was distributed: who was favored and who was slighted. The answer to the question might be expressed in where the adult child is now living. Children with resentments often tend to move away. Children who love their parents tend to live closer. Children who feel guilty in relation to their parents might either move far away or stay close. This is an effect of the law and has to do with the deeply felt conviction that the love from mother and father was proportional.

Grace demolishes the idea of proportional loving. It demolishes it, first, from the standpoint of God. People who suffer from the bitterness of proportional loving, which is the law, are able to find an immediate alternative in the evenness of the love of Christ. He loved everyone unconditionally, and the result was that there is no male and female, no high-class and trailer-trash, no black and white, no “Sunni and Shiite” in the family of God (Galatian 3:28; Colossians 3:11). There are no sisters and brothers in the sibling sense within his love. Because his love is one-way, removed from any relation with the receiver, there is no “rivalry.” I am not reticent to say that the grace of Christ is the first stage of healing for siblings who are furious at one another.

Grace also puts an emphasis on the metaphor of adoption… Grace makes siblings stand on even ground.